Whether it’s improving the way we navigate the world through GPS or making it possible to pay for our groceries from anywhere in the world, satellites have become an essential part of keeping our modern lives running. But up until fairly recently, launching satellites into space was a bit like throwing a stick into a river and waiting for the current to take it on its natural course. That is to say, it wasn’t very accurate. That was until ION, a satellite carrier which solves the problem by delivering satellites exactly where they need to be, putting them into the correct orbit faster and more efficiently than ever before. It’s an innovation from space logistics company D-Orbit, a customer of PTC’s Italian partner Dedagroup Business Solutions, and it means satellites can begin their essential work in a matter of days instead of months.
The Mission Control Centre is the bridge of the spaceship. The desks are organized as the bridge of the Enterprise with two big screens where all the orbits of their carriers are projected, and where you can see, in real time, the position in space of our six-flying spacecraft, and the status of all of them. This is where all the critical operations are executed, like first acquisition of signal after launch, payload release, or critical operations during the mission. At the back is the captain’s position, where the director of the orchestra sits. Operations is at the front, sending and receiving commands—especially everything that is related to altitude and flight control. Engineering and communication monitor the status of the spacecraft and ground segment, because satellite is only as good as your link to it.
D-Orbit started in 2011. I can say it now, but it was crazy at the time. We wanted to build spaceships that could matter. We wanted to build a logistics infrastructure and create a transportation infrastructure for the industry, for humanity, because we believe that transportation, just like building roads, is the first thing that you need to do if you want to expand. We started from there. That was the founding idea.
The ION Satellite Carrier is a very special spacecraft. It’s not a satellite, because a satellite is something that flies in orbit, stays on that orbit for its whole life, and then is removed. ION is not designed to do that—it’s designed to move. It’s designed to be an agile spacecraft. You can imagine it as a last-mile delivery service that is taken to orbit by big rockets. Sometimes even multiple Ions at a time. ION is loaded with the customers—the satellites and other payloads—and then, by using its own propulsive means, moves from orbit to orbit releasing and delivering the customers to where they have to go.
The clean room is where the magic happens, and bare metal is turned into spacecrafts. Coats, hair nets, beard nets, and shoe covers are worn—because inside, the air is very clean. They don’t want any dust to deposit on optics, hardware components, actuators, or mechanisms. The air is maintained in a clean, temperature and humidity-controlled environment. It is very common in the space industry, and often mandatory. The clean room is divided into sectors and has been reorganized several times over the last few months to accommodate an ever-growing line of production. Right now, they can accommodate 15 carriers per year as a rate of manufacturing, in various manufacturing stages. Manufacturing is organized similarly to automotives, so the satellites move along the production line to the various stages. Once they’ve finished, they exit from the airlock, and are shipped away to the launch site.
One of the selling points of the ION carrier is its capability of conducting orbital manoeuvres. Once it’s in flight, it’s released by the launcher, it has its own propulsion system, its own thrusters, its own little rockets, so they can move up and down to reach the final orbital destination. Of course, you need fuel, and a propellant. Actually, you need much more oxidizer than fuel, so they have tanks for the oxidizer, and on the other side, tanks for the fuel.
Launch day is always a little bit of a strange day. Generally, launches happen at strange times, not during work hours. Most of the launches happen overnight, so a good number of people from the office go out for dinner together, then meet for the launch. And even if it’s the fifth or sixth time you see a launch, it is always a little bit of a stress because, after years of work, there’s a barely controlled bomb that is exploding in a continent far away, and everything happens in 10 minutes. It’s a little bit of stress, and I don’t think you really can get used to it. D-Orbit’s CTO and “employee number on” Lorenzo Ferrario says, “I am not ashamed to say that I’ve cried a few times.” The operations team, meanwhile, are completely focused, so they have to be well rested.
The team follows the streaming from launch provider, and at some point, the carrier is released from the launcher. When that happens, the carrier turns on because the switches on the carrier tell the computer that the release has happened. Everything comes to life. The first thing it does is look for the sun, because it’s powered by solar panels, so Sun is life. Itt stops any kind of tumbling that was induced by the separation. After that, it starts opening a radio connection, a radio transmission, which is called the beacon, which sends an “I’m here,” kind of message every few seconds. And the first time that it passes over one of the stations—which could be minutes or sometimes even one hour after the launch—you have the acquisition of signal (AOS). This is when tensions are at their highest. The only thing you can do at that moment is just wait and see if the spacecraft calls on.
“As soon as you have contact, as soon as you recognize the signal, the dance happens,” says Lorenzo. “You start sending commands, you start receiving telemetry, and at that point, you verify how the satellite is, so if everything is well after launch, and you start the commissioning of the spacecraft, the commissioning is basically the beginning of life. It’s goosebumps every time. You realise that engineers can cry.” The future of the space industry, he adds, is very bright, and it’s very exciting. “So, we’ve seen things happening, things that we never thought would have happened, ever. I remember very clearly the day we were given mathematical proof, during a lecture at the university, that landing a rocket was not possible. But I also remember very clearly the day in which a company did land the rocket—and now it has become a routine.”
Placing a satellite in orbit is like landing a rocket vertically on a barge in the middle of the ocean, 600 kilometres away from the launch pad. But over the last two years, more satellites have been launched than the last 30 years combined. “We are in a situation where there are a lot of different solutions to the same problems,” explained Lorenzo. “So it’s also very exciting because this is where creativity matters. You can literally see the effects of the choices that you make, not just on the products that the company makes, but also on everybody else.” In terms of possibility, Lorenzo believes that we are in a stage of space history in which we are transitioning from a phase of exploration, which has been everything that has been in this industry since 1957 to now, into a phase of expansion in which we go to stay. “We don’t go to come back and then go somewhere else,” he says.
This is a huge step, because it means that space becomes one of the environments of humanity, just like sea, air, and, of course, ground. Some are convinced that we are in the generation that will see life extending outside Earth—basically the normalisation of space. As Lorenzo says, “We will stop talking about space as we do right now, and we will start talking about space as we do for aircraft. When space will become boring it will mean that we’ve done a good job.”
Each of D-Orbit’s clients has different requirements, so its missions are never identical. To make sure they can adapt quickly to client requests, they need software which models the final product in a fast and efficient way. That’s where PTC’s 3D computer-aided design software Creo comes in. Creo is PTC’s flagship 3D CAD solution. Primarily, the reason why customers started moving to 3D CAD 30 years ago is simply because until the invention of really scalable, commercial-ready 3D CAD design engineers had to, for lack of a better term, imagine the third dimension of their designs. They were doing everything in 2D. The level of additional comfort and confidence that design engineers get by being able to completely define their designs in full 3D is really hard to underestimate. It is extremely valuable to have full confidence in your designs in 3D to make sure those designs can go together, as the manufacturing team starts to assemble them.
The fact that the model is fully defined in 3D gives rise to all of these other design checks, manufacturability checks and serviceability checks, because you now can evaluate designs in ways that customers never could before. And so, 3D CAD, the process of defining your designs in 3D, fundamentally gives customers the full capability of evaluating that design from every respect in the value chain, from every point of view in the value chain—and Creo’s ability to capture whatever it is you need to model is one of its fundamental strengths. D-Orbit has a pretty significant challenge, because their assembly is very large, and the complexity of bringing together hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of parts into particular modules that get stuck together into a larger assembly is extremely difficult to do if you’re trying to do it in 2D. Creo is particularly adept at helping customers to visualise and manage the development of very large assemblies.
It’s not just that Creo can, say, open a large assembly quickly. Of course, it can. But it’s also that Creo helps design engineers get to their design context really efficiently. Design engineers don’t need the entire assembly up when they’re working on one particular part of the assembly. But they do need to say, “Hey, here’s the area of the design that I want to be working in right now.” And Creo has great tools for helping design engineers efficiently tell the system, “This is the area I want to work in, please give me everything and all the detail that I need in this area so that I can get my work done effectively.” It also understands how to keep all of that up to date, even though the design engineer is working in a very small part of the design at any one time. It’s really powerful stuff.
Thanks to Brian, and to Lorenzo for showing us around D-Orbit’s headquarters.
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This is an 18 Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Sound design and editing by Ollie Guillou. Location recording by Jonathan Zenti. And music by Rowan Bishop.